Teaching marketing and doing marketing

To teach marketing, and at the same time work in marketing, is something I’ve struggled with. In my marketing classes at SIVA (上海视觉艺术学院), everything I tell is simple, structured, and proven: Step A, B, C — a tidy, bullet-point reality.

But when I look at what I do at my full-time job at GoEast, I’m the worst student in my own class. Our marketing strategy’s a massive paint splash: The biggest blob kinda hits the target, but it’s messy and dripping all over the place.

It makes me feel a deceiver, as if I don’t practise what I preach. And I wonder: Do untalented marketeers teach, because the classroom is more forgiving than reality? But how can that be true, I ask myself, when teaching has been one of the hardest things I’ve done. Or is it that teaching and simplifying always requires some deception — because I cannot add nuance at every step?

I struggled with this for a long time, but I think part apology, part explanation is that no strategy ever fully works as intended. Brands in the market don’t operate in the sandbox space that classrooms provide; but rather in a constantly moving and illogical competitive space. Sometimes what should work well, doesn’t — or vice versa. For GoEast I’m certainly discovering this.

Not just that. Students in the classroom never need to consider stock or staff capacity, existing structures in the company, IT infrastructure, necessary compromises to other departments, legislation, international payment limitations, and other limited resources. All their predictions about footfall can be off-the-scale optimistic — nor do they need to worry about actually building brand awareness; a slow and expensive process. They just assume people will care about their brand. Nor do they ever need to factor in a worldwide pandemic.

The differences between theory and reality only appear when different parts interact with each other in a larger whole; this not only happens within companies, but also within markets. This is what the classroom cannot teach you, and only work experience can. The point for the classroom is to teach marketing theory — and it does prepare you well. Then once you start working, you gradually let go of it, because your experience allows you to better anticipate the impact of your actions within a specific situation.

The boring point here is: It all depends. Yet this complexity would be a good realization for future marketeers to have — because many of the current ones mistake ideal for dogma, as they flex their theory books like Byron Sharp’s How brands grow, or Les Binet & Peter Field The long & short of it. Those books are fantastic and must-reads, but you can’t just think that if you just spend 60% of your marketing budget on brand building and 40% on activation, that it’ll lead to success. (I’ve tried drinking like Charles Bukowski, but it didn’t make me a better writer.)

Classrooms and textbooks — filled with averages of case studies, points made after the fact — both operate in vacuums which reality doesn’t have. When the September semester starts, I’ll make sure my students know. And maybe it’ll make me sleep better too.